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INTRODUCTION TO MINDFULNESS & MEDITATION

Since its introduction to mainstream Western medicine and society in the late '70s, mindfulness has received considerable scholarly attention. Over the last decade, scientific research on mindfulness has intensified, approaching the concept from a practical and a theoretical angle. For instance, different mindfulness training programs have been developed and tested using various target populations. Training programs, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive therapy, and mindfulness-based eating awareness training, have all been used successfully to treat emotional and behavioral disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, major depression, chronic pain, or eating disorders. A growing body of empirical research has found evidence of mindfulness-based interventions' effectiveness in reducing clinical symptoms and promoting psychological well-being in non-clinical samples. Besides its practical application, different studies have attempted to uncover the underlying mechanisms of mindfulness, aiming to understand the construct in terms of processes like self-regulation, impulsivity, executive functioning, and memory.

MINDFULNESS DEFINED

Mindfulness is defined as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment" In other words, mindfulness involves directing attention to the experience in the present moment and a non-evaluative observation of that experience. Research has consistently shown that mindfulness is an essential predictor of well-being. For instance, mindfulness has been associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, more positive affect, less negative affect, greater life satisfaction, and a sense of autonomy and competence. Higher levels of mindfulness have also been associated with various positive psychological outcomes, such as lower levels of neuroticism, depression, and anxiety and higher levels of self-esteem, vitality, and authenticity.

TECHNIQUES

This next section aims to briefly discuss the most commonly used mindfulness practices, both formal and informal, that are well documented and researched and are part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Kabat Zinn. Formal exercises include meditation and movement practices, such as mindful yoga or walking. On the other hand, informal activities involve paying full attention, consciously, to what one is doing or experiencing at a given moment.

FORMAL MEDITATION EXERCISES

The following sections describe three formal mindfulness meditation exercises that are an inherent part of mindfulness interventions and are performed during group sessions under the supervision of the mindfulness trainer. Participants are also encouraged to complete them at home daily. To help them do so, participants usually receive audio files in which the trainer guides them through the respective meditations.

BODY SCAN

 

As the name suggests, the body scan entails bringing awareness to each part of the body. Participants are first instructed to pay attention to their posture and then to their breathing. Subsequently, attention is directed to different body parts, starting with the feet and moving up from there. During the exercise, participants pay attention to various physical sensations present in a specific area of the body. After focusing briefly on a particular body region, one is instructed to move on to the next part. During the exercise, many find themselves easily distracted by thoughts, bodily sensations, or sounds. When distraction occurs, the participant is instructed to return attention to the body part at hand gently. Participants are encouraged to do so without blaming themselves or reacting in frustration, as distracting thoughts or sensations are inevitable, which requires extensive practice until they become less. In addition, when paying attention to the body, one might become aware of painful or unpleasant sensations (e.g., neck or back pain). Instead of altering, ignoring, or suppressing these sensations, one notices them moment by moment.

SEATED MEDITATION

Just as the body scan uses the body as an object of attention, the seated meditation takes the breath as the main focus of attention. Participants are instructed to sit upward with a straight back, preferably with closed eyes. After becoming briefly aware of the current posture, the participant directs attention to breathing. They notice the physical sensations of breathing, such as the air moving into the nostrils and the chest expanding. As soon as the mind begins to wander, the participant notices the distracting thought without evaluating it and returns his attention to the breath in a kind way.

THREE-MINUTE BREATHING SPACE

The three-minute breathing space is a brief mindfulness meditation that can help integrate mindfulness into everyday life. It enables one to disrupt automatic thinking and behavior patterns and increase acceptance-based coping. The exercise commonly involves the following three steps. The first step consists in asking oneself, "Where am I?" "How am I?" "What am I thinking?" In this way, one steps outside the "doing mode" momentarily, disrupts habitual patterns, and becomes aware of the everyday experience. The second step involves a single focus of attention. Attention is directed away from thinking to the breath. During the third and last step, engagement is expanded to include awareness of body sensations. The focus here is on the body as a whole. The three-minute breathing space involves a direct coping method characterized by the understanding and willingness to experience what is present.

 

OBSTACLES AND PRACTICAL ADVICE

 

During working hours, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to spend 15 minutes lying down performing a body scan or focusing on one's breath with the eyes closed. Note, however, that formal exercises can be adapted. While the body scan is most often carried out in a lying position, it is also possible to use a seated position. Moreover, the duration can be altered. Both longer (e.g., 45 minutes) and shorter versions (e.g., 15 minutes) of the seated meditation and body scan have been used in practice and research. For some people, starting with shorter meditations and building from there is more effective in terms of adherence than starting with full 15-minute meditation sessions. The three-minute breathing space may be beneficial because of its short duration. First, participants can be asked to use the breathing space at three fixed times during the day to build a habit. Next, when participants are used to the exercise, they can use it whenever they need it. In the latter case, the movement is used to cope with emotions, thoughts, feelings, or sensations. For instance, when an employee experiences stress at work, they may pause for a moment and use the exercise to disrupt the negative cycle of stress-related thoughts. By connecting with the body, they may also become aware of bodily stress responses, allowing for appropriate measurements (example, taking a break).

Integrating more extensive formal mindfulness practices in a busy daily life requires careful planning and communication. It is recommended that people decide themselves when and where they want to do the exercises. While some people find it more feasible to practice in the morning before work, others may benefit more from practicing in the evening after work. Moreover, informing family members about the practice can help them minimize interruptions during practice. Repeating this practice regularly using the same time and location will likely result in a habit, increasing these effects.

INFORMAL EXERCISES

In addition to these formal exercises, mindfulness interventions involve informal practices that enhance mindful awareness during everyday activities. They require a single focus of attention and the ability to gently turn back to the object of attention following a distraction. The object of attention can be anything, ranging from a conversation with a colleague to eating lunch. We predict that these exercises are beneficial when integrating mindfulness at the workplace because they do not require additional time or environmental changes. Note that there are endless examples of informal practices, making it impossible to list and describe them all. We have attempted to categorize and briefly explain the most critical everyday exercises in the work context.

AWARENESS OF ROUTINE ACTIVITIES

Routine activities are activities performed regularly, often daily. Most frequent activities require little conscious attention because they are highly automatized. Examples include taking a shower, driving or walking to the workplace, or consuming lunch. The idea is to focus entirely on the activity, body movements, sight, and sensations. When thoughts or other distractions emerge, one notices them and brings back attention to the task at hand. For instance, when eating mindfully, one eats slowly, directing attention mainly to the experience in the present moment, which includes physical movements, the taste and smell of the food, and the like. Thus, one adopts a single focus of attention rather than doing multiple things simultaneously (such as reading while eating, talking on the phone while driving home, and thinking about work while taking a shower). As part of mindfulness training programs, participants are encouraged to pick a few of these routine activities and to practice mindfully performing them. Since it is not time-consuming and involves activities that are served daily, this exercise can easily be implemented into one's workday. Participants may pick activities, such as being mindful while having lunch, walking to the copy machine, or driving home from work.

BODY AWARENESS

The awareness of the body that is cultivated through the body scan can be implemented in daily life by paying attention to the body regularly throughout the day in various circumstances. One can pay attention to posture and become aware of physical sensations like pain or tension. Jobs requiring lifting, monotonous tasks, uncomfortable work postures, repetitive movements, and prolonged periods at computer terminals are associated with physical problems, such as neck/back pain and occupational repetitive strain injuries. Mindful awareness of these sensations will likely enhance early detection and prevention of physical complaints. For instance, one can implement daily conscious awareness by setting the alarm randomly to disrupt repetitive movements or become aware of one's posture.

AWARENESS OF IMPULSIVE AND REACTIVE PATTERNS

Many daily patterns of thinking and behavior are habitual (unconscious) reactions to experiences or events. Failing to perform well may immediately trigger negative, self-critical thoughts and judgments. The experience of sadness can result in a direct attempt to push away the unwanted feeling. A snide remark from a colleague may cause one to raise their voice and say things they might regret afterward. In all these examples, automatic patterns guide the behavior. Mindfulness requires awareness of these experiences as they arise during the day. While it may be challenging to become aware of these experiences before the onset of an impulsive reaction, becoming aware of them afterward can also be beneficial because it may enhance the detection of similar patterns.

AWARENESS DURING SOCIAL INTERACTION

Practicing mindfulness in a social context involves interacting with the other person(s) as a single point of focus. Instead of multi-tasking during a conversation with a colleague or thinking about what to say next, attention is paid to the current conversation. In contrast to identifying with one's assumptions and reacting impulsively, mindfulness requires an open, non-judgmental attitude during the conversation characterized by deep listening, perspective-taking, and allowing the other to respond. Moreover, mindfulness during social interaction can involve speaking with awareness. Examples include pausing before speaking, monitoring one's thoughts, and considering the effect of saying them out loud. Practicing awareness during social interaction is an exercise that can easily be implemented into one's everyday life.

Resources and Additional Readings

Aaras, A., Horgen, G., & Ro, O. 2000. Work with the visual display unit: Health consequences. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 12, 107-134.

 

Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241.

 

Bohlmeijer, E., Prenger, R., Taal, E., & Cuijpers, P. (2010). The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy on mental

health of adults with a chronic medical disease: a meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68, 539-44.

 

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.

 

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Perils and promise in defining and measuring mindfulness: Observations from experience. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 242–248.

 

Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., Loverich, T. M., Biegel, G. M., & West, A. M. (2011). Out of the armchair and into the streets: Measuring mindfulness advances knowledge and improves interventions: Replyto Grossman (2011). Psychological Assessment, 23, 1041–1046.

 

Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15, 593–600.

 

Collard, P., Avny, N., & Boniwell, I. (2008). Teaching mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) to students: The effects of MBCT on the levels of mindfulness and subjective well-being. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 21, 323-336.

 

Fetterman, A. K., Robinson, M. D., Ode, S., & Gordon, K. H. (2010). Neuroticism as a risk factor for behavioral dysregulation: A mindfulness-mediation perspective. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 301–321.

 

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35–43.

 

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An out-patient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4, 33–47.

 

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. NewYork: Delacorte.

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